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Damming the Parks

Published: March 29, 2016

“If the people of the United States want their Grand Canyon to remain as it is, they had better keep an eye on it,” Bernard DeVoto warned in a 1950 Post article. “Most people who have seen the Grand Canyon consider it our supreme natural spectacle. What would it look like if the Colorado River at the bottom of the gorge, the river that carved the gorge, were to be made a dry streambed?”

Read those words today, and your first thought might go to climate change, remembering the California drought headlines or a photo of the bleached river basin you saw on your smartphone at breakfast. But in 1950, DeVoto was protesting the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Project.

The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian was among the first to bring national opposition to the project’s three major dam proposals — Bridge Canyon, Echo Park, and Glen Canyon. Echo Park was the most controversial as it would cover most of Dinosaur National Monument, and in the end, only Glen Canyon Dam was built, but its benefits are still debated to this day.

The following is an excerpt from DeVoto’s 1950 article.

Shall We Let Them Ruin Our National Parks?

By Bernard DeVoto
Originally published on July 22, 1950

Do you want these wild splendors kept intact for your kids to see? Then watch out for the Army Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation — because right where the scenery is, that’s where they want to build dams.

No one has asked the American people whether they want their sovereign rights, and those of their descendants, in their own publicly reserved beauty spots wiped out. Thirty-two million of them visited the National Parks in 1949. More will visit them this year. The attendance will keep on increasing as long as they are worth visiting, but a good many of them will not be worth visiting if engineers are let loose on them.

Most people who have seen the Grand Canyon consider it our supreme natural spectacle. What would it look like if the Colorado River at the bottom of the gorge, the river that carved the gorge, were to be made a dry streambed?

After the Green River flows out of Wyoming to cross parts of Northwestern Colorado and Northeastern Utah, it roars and riots through a series of deep, narrow canyons, one of which is named Lodore. If a dam were to transform the tempestuous Green in Lodore Canyon into a lake 500 feet deep, would you drive 2,000 miles to sail a dinghy there?

These and other areas of unmatched beauty or sublimity, which were made National Parks or National Monuments so that they could be preserved untouched forever, are in danger of being ruined by engineering projects. Should we let them be ruined?

The National Park Service is a bureau of the Department of the Interior, where, in appropriations, it is overshadowed by the Bureau of Reclamation, which builds dams. Though the Park Service has other duties, its primary job is to administer the National Parks and Monuments. The act of Congress which created it directed it “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The legally enacted policy cannot be misconstrued: the parks and monuments are to be preserved as they are naturally, without defacement. It has been maintained so far, though not without hard effort. Because some of these areas contain valuable minerals, timber, water resources, and water power, there have been many attempts to get the law changed so that they could be exploited. These attempts, which would ruin the parks if they succeeded, have heretofore usually been made by private groups intent on getting hold of public resources for their own profit.

In the last few years, however, a curious development has brought the National Park System under attack by two public agencies. Each of them has about a third of a billion dollars of public funds to spend every year, and so can exert incomparably more pressure than any corporation that ever cast a covetous eye on the wilderness beauties which were set aside for posterity to enjoy. One of these agencies is the Bureau of Reclamation, the other the Corps of (Army) Engineers. Their campaign of attrition raises fundamental questions about our grandchildren’s heritage of wilderness scenery. It also involves serious issues in regard to the power of Federal agencies to subvert public policy. How the campaign works and what hinges on it can be clearly seen in the current effort of the Bureau of Reclamation to get authorization, which is now not legally possible, to make over Lodore Canyon in Colorado.

The canyon was named and first traversed by the adventurous one-armed geologist, John Wesley Powell, on his exploration of the Green and Colorado rivers. It was on June 8, 1869, that he took his boats into this deep and narrow gorge. Confined between sandstone walls that are alternately overhanging and set back in terraces, the Green here becomes an unimaginably violent chaos of rapids, falls, whirlpools, sucks, and chutes. This 20-mile stretch is one of the most hazardous — and most spectacular — parts of the so-far-untamed Green River.

Here Is One of Our Great Scenic Areas

Before entering Lodore Canyon, the Green flows tranquilly through a mountain meadow called Brown’s Park. At the lower end of the canyon it emerges into another beautiful, high-walled valley which Powell named Echo Park. Massive rock formations rise from the floor of Echo Park, and here the Yampa River flows into the Green from the east, having just emerged from a narrow, twisting canyon wholly unlike Lodore, but equally overpowering. The Green then flows westward through two more canyons. The setting of these four canyons is a landscape of brilliantly colored, fantastically eroded mesas, buttes, mountains, gulches, and high basins. A panorama of fantasy, overwhelming to the imagination, this high rock desert has certain resemblances to the Bryce Canyon and Zion Canyon country and to Cedar Breaks, all in Utah, and to the setbacks and vistas of the Grand Canyon, which is in Arizona. But as each of these tremendous spectacles is, it is unique, of its own individual character and quality. It is one of the great scenic areas of the United States.

In 1938, Lodore Canyon, Yampa Canyon, Echo Park, the two subsidiary canyons and their rock-desert setting — 327 square miles all told — were made a National Monument and transferred from the public domain to the National Park System. If the area had been called, say, Green River National Monument, its nature and importance would have been self-evident in the name. But a National Monument already existed at its western edge, a small tract of 80 acres which had been set aside to protect the greatest known deposit of Mesozoic fossils, especially dinosaurs. The new reservation was added to this and the whole received the name of the original small part, Dinosaur National Monument. As a result, during the effort to keep a magnificent scenic wilderness from being defaced, many people have supposed that only the quarry where dinosaur fossils are excavated is at stake, though, as a matter of fact, the quarry has never been endangered.

When the monument was established, most of Brown’s Park was left outside the boundaries. This exclusion was made because, years earlier, the Reclamation Service — now the Bureau of Reclamation — had declared Brown’s Park a possible site for a reclamation project — that is, for a reservoir from which water could be pumped to irrigate a small area in Eastern Utah. The Bureau of Reclamation has by now abandoned whatever intention it may have had of so using Brown’s Park. But it has undertaken to construct a hydroelectric-power development in Dinosaur National Monument. Both the laws which govern power projects and those which protect the National Park System forbid the construction of power dams in National Parks and National Monuments. There are, however, various ways of skinning a cat if you are good with a skinning knife. No one has ever said that the Bureau of Reclamation isn’t.

In 1943, the First Assistant Secretary of the Interior made a “reclamation withdrawal” covering most of Dinosaur National Monument — that is, he officially declared it an area which could be used for reclamation projects. The “withdrawal” was almost certainly unauthorizable and therefore of no force. Furthermore, it was so smothered in administrative routine that, though it would destroy the monument, the National Park Service did not learn of it when it was made. On the basis of this questionable and semicovert withdrawal for reclamation — for irrigation — the bureau then began to plan a power development, which is prohibited. It proposed to build two dams with attendant power plants, one at Echo Park, the other at Split Mountain, farther down Green River. The estimated cost of the project is $207 million.

The National Park Service first heard of the project as a daydream of the Bureau of Reclamation in connection with a vast plan for the transformation of the West called the Colorado River Project. The Green River is, of course, part of the Colorado River system. It was, so to speak, a theoretical, just possible expedient to be tentatively considered in case equivalent results could be secured nowhere else in the Colorado River basin — and to be considered then only after exhaustive study and only after consultation with the National Park Service.

In spite of this understanding, and without consulting the Park Service or obtaining clearance from the Secretary of the Interior, the bureau laid the Dinosaur Monument project before the bodies that administer the interstate agreement which apportions water from the Colorado River. In February of this year those bodies recommended the immediate construction of Echo Park Dam. This would require legislation from Congress to authorize construction that is now prohibited in the monument — and the heat was on. Especially, the heat was on the Secretary of the Interior, one of whose duties is to protect the public interests — your interests — in the National Park System. The Western bloc worked smoothly. When Secretary Chapman ordered a public hearing, four Western senators and five Western congressmen appeared to add their testimony to that of embattled mayors and chambers of commerce that the nation would be well served by the abandonment of the policy which has protected the National Parks.

They Say It’s Necessary for Irrigation

The hearing disclosed that not only heat had been generated but much fog, or smoke screen, as well. The Echo Park and Split Mountain project is solely a power development, but it received much support it otherwise might not have got because it has been represented in the West, where irrigation is a sacred word, as an irrigation project. Again, the people of Utah have come, or have been led, to believe that water which the state has been allotted from the Colorado can be got to a still theoretical and prodigiously expensive reclamation project in Central Utah only from the reservoirs which the Bureau of Reclamation has planned in Dinosaur Monument. Actually, the bureau’s own plans show that this water is to be taken from another project, farther up Green River and outside the monument. Utah and neighboring states have come, or have been led, to believe that these dams are indispensable for storage water allotted them from the Colorado. Actually, the bureau plans to provide most of this storage at another dam far to the south of the monument, and the rest of it — if any more is needed for the allocations — could be provided at other sites outside the monument.

Finally, Utah believes that the sites of these dams are the only ones where power for its still-theoretical project could be generated, whereas there are many feasible sites outside Dinosaur Monument. And at the public hearing, Gen. U.S. Grant III, himself an engineer, showed that the use of one of these other sites would reduce the cost of the project by a third. Nevertheless, the various appeals mentioned above have been blended to make a really formidable confusion.

No Western state would receive any benefit from the construction of these dams inside the monument that could not be insured by alternative construction outside it. What about the people of the United States as a whole, whose property the monument is? On behalf of sectional and even local interests, the general public will have to pay the nonrecoverable cost, always a large fraction of the total cost, of a $207 million project. In return it will suffer the permanent ruin of an area of great natural beauty.

For it will be permanently ruined. If you cut down a forest, Nature will probably grow another one in the course of a few centuries, but if you change a river, a mountain or a canyon, you can never change it back again. The downriver dam in Dinosaur Monument would defile the mountain-park country along and below it and substitute a placid reservoir for the turbulent river above it. The other one, Echo Park Dam, would back water so far that throughout the whole extent of Lodore Canyon the Green River, the tempestuous, pulse-stirring river of John Wesley Powell, would become a mere millpond. The same would happen to Yampa Canyon.

Throughout both canyons the deep artificial lakes would engulf magnificent scenery, would reduce by from a fifth to a third the height of the precipitous walls, and would fearfully degrade the great vistas. Echo Park and its magnificent rock formations would be submerged. Dinosaur National Monument as a scenic spectacle would cease to exist.

A specious argument which has been used in connection with this assault on Dinosaur Monument is also a steadily increasing danger to other parts of the National Park System. We long ago passed the point where reclaimed Western land could repay the cost of the projects that reclaimed it, as it was originally intended to do. If it costs several hundred dollars an acre to make land worth $50 an acre, the rest of the cost must be charged to something besides reclamation. If the project includes the production of electricity, the sale of power will take care of part of the remainder. If it includes flood protection — and, nowadays, try to find any dam on any babbling brook that is not supposed to — whatever fraction of the remainder can be allocated to flood control can be written off altogether, since the whole country benefits from reduction of flood losses. But honest cost accounting ends right there; no additional economic justification can be found. Hence the Bureau of Reclamation has begun to publicize a shimmering but carefully unanalyzed value which it calls “recreation.”

If the bureau can successfully allege that its projects create facilities for recreation, then it can charge to them as much of the uneconomic cost as it is able to get away with. Nobody doubts that the American people need facilities for recreation and will need more of them as our population increases. But what kind, where, at what cost, and who shall pay for them? Should we write off $10 million of the cost of an irrigation project because it will provide bass fishing for one North Dakota county? Should Philadelphia and Birmingham be taxed to provide sailboating for Las Vegas?

If it is able to force the Echo Park project through, the Bureau of Reclamation will build some fine highways along the reservoirs. Anyone who travels the 2,000 miles from New York City — or 1,200 from Galveston or 1,000 from Seattle — will no doubt enjoy driving along those roads. He can also do still-water fishing where, before the bureau took benevolent thought of him, he could do only white-water fishing, and he can go boating or sailing on the reservoirs that have obliterated the scenery.

But the New Yorker can go motoring along the Palisades, boating in Central Park, sailing at Larchmont and fishing at many places within an hour of George Washington Bridge. No one will ever drive 2,000 miles to row a boat; no one will ever seek recreation in a National Park except the kind for which the “pleasuring ground” was created — the unique experience of awe and wonder that an untouched wilderness spectacle provides. The only reason why anyone would ever go to Dinosaur National Monument is to see what the Bureau of Reclamation proposes to destroy.

But keeping informed about such attacks on the National Parks is extremely difficult. These plans may be vital for the future of the West, and the future of the West is vitally important to the United States. But the people have no adequate idea of how sound the plans may be, how far some of them may fail, how much money may be wasted. Engineers of unimpeachable professional standing have asserted that large parts of them are mistakenly conceived or even potentially disastrous. But the public has no chance to judge.

It is, in fact, almost impossible to bring effective criticism to bear on the projects of these two agencies. As far as the individual citizen is concerned, the data are kept secret. They are not publicized outside the West and only the favorable ones are publicized there. By the time a project is laid before Congress it has already been decided upon, the local interests have been organized and the Western senators and representatives — one of the most powerful blocs in Congress — have been lined up. Within the West there is severe infighting for the allocation of projects, but when it comes to getting projects to be allocated, there are neither state nor party lines: there is only a solid West. The Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Engineers have a vested institutional interest in the West, the interest not only of continuing to function but of expanding and growing more powerful. They have vast sums of money to spend. Their preliminary planners, field agents, and entire official hierarchy readily lay down the shovel and the hoe, and pick up the microphone at any hint that their plans may be interfered with or even inquired into. Both are able to summon to their support an organized political pressure that only nationwide public opinion could defeat.

That is the larger picture into which the assault on the National Parks fits. Unquestionably, the national interest requires the parks and monuments to be preserved unmarred, as they were intended to be.

No emergency serious enough to justify invading the National Park System arose during either World War. No emergency is in sight now. But with as much time for planning as might be required, with promising and perhaps better alternatives only cursorily investigated, the Bureau of Reclamation is able to threaten Dinosaur National Monument with destruction. And probably the bureau’s hand was not idle in a California agitation that has succeeded in introducing into Congress a bill to investigate all the possible power sites in Kings Canyon National Park. This park preserves the most magnificent mountain country in California outside Yosemite Park. Its boundaries were drawn so as to exclude areas which ought to have been included, but which were left out precisely because they were valuable power sites. The Engineers threaten Mammoth Cave with a dam which even Kentucky does not want. They threaten Glacier Park with a dam which they formally agreed not to build.

If any of these attempts should succeed, the law which protects the parks will be circumvented and there will be no protecting any of them from similar impairment thereafter. The parks do not belong to any bureau, any group of planners or engineers, any state or section. They belong to all of us. Do we want them? Will our grandchildren want them?

More on National Parks here.

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  • Lilah Shoman

    My family have visited and been excited about and educated at many of our National Parks. We all were in awe of what we saw and what we learned. Our little fold up camper traveled to and through the parks. The education by the Park Rangers and educators has given our children and experience we could not put a price tag on. It is remembered and talked about when the family gathers The experience have been passed on to our grandchildren. Let us keep our National Parks and Monuments for all future generations. LLS